Since the Arab Spring started nearly a year ago, the world community has slowly split into two camps over how to react to this mass plea for liberty.
That global division was made crystal clear at the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
In a telling moment, China and Russia vetoed a resolution against Syria’s attacks on protesters, which have resulted in more than 2,700 killings. The measure, supported by the West and others, had already been watered down. If it had passed, it would have been the first legally binding resolution by the United Nations against Syria.
The global split was visible when both the American and British envoys walked out of the council in disgust. US Ambassador Susan Rice also gave a startling rebuke to countries that don’t want to help the Arabs seek the “universal aspirations” of freedom.
“The courageous people of Syria can now clearly see who on this council supports their yearning for liberty and human rights, and who does not,” she said. The French and British envoys made similar remarks.
Ms. Rice even accused leaders opposed to the resolution of giving “cover” to the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. And she was specific in fingering Russia and China for wanting to sell arms to Damascus.
Harsh but well-pointed words like these have not been heard much in the UN since the end of the cold war.
Even after China and Russia vetoed similar resolutions against Zimbabwe in 2008 and Burma (Myanmar) in 2007, the West’s response was not as rhetorically stinging. And the Obama administration was happy enough last March when the council voted to allow NATO intervention in Libya with China and Russia merely abstaining.
The threat of an Arab Spring-style revolt in their own countries has forced them and their autocratic allies into a sort of dictators club. They are nervous enough to nip the UN’s ability to interfere in countries suffering massive violations of human rights.
Also, lesser powers are deciding to form a new-style “third world” – or nations not taking sides as the Arab Spring forces choices to be made by the international community. In Tuesday’s vote, for example, India, Brazil, and South Africa all abstained – despite their own historic struggles to win democracy.
The stronger defiance by China and Russia, as seen in Tuesday’s UN vote, may, too, reflect their notice of a recent stalling in the dramatic, half-century rise in the number of democracies.
On Tuesday, for example, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin called for the creation of a “Eurasian union,” or forming many former Soviet states into a new political entity. “We propose a model of a powerful, supranational union, capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world,” he wrote in an article.
Last January, the Washington watchdog group Freedom House warned in a report that a failure of democracies to defend people seeking freedom will allow despots “to gain from divide-and-conquer strategies.” Mr. Putin has certainly tried to do that with Europe and ex-Soviet client states.
“The increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes,” the Freedom House report stated, “has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge, with important consequences for the state of global freedom.”
Advancing liberty isn’t easy for the US and others, especially when times are tough. And it will take more than strong words and diplomatic walk-outs.
But the Arab people, even those who have long been anti-American, are pleading for outside help. At the least, they now know clearly which countries are on their side.